David Oyelowo stars in Lawmen: Bass Reeves, an eight-part limited series depicting the life and times of Bass Reeves, the first Black US Marshal west of the Mississippi, and a lawman with a tremendous record of thousands of arrests—including of his own son, Bennie—with comparatively few deaths to his name (fourteen, all in defense of his own life or the lives of others, he was known for bringing people in without violence, a rarity in his day). 


The series was originally developed as a spin off of Yellowstone spin-off 1883, but instead series creator and showrunner Chad Feehan and producer-star Oyelowo pivoted to make Bass Reeves its own thing, though the series does have a light Taylor Sheridan sheen in its depiction of the west as a place of mythmaking. 

For the most part, Bass Reeves is perfectly fine (this review is of the first five episodes). At times, it recalls the sprawling Western miniseries of the primetime TV era, such as Lonesome Dove, at other times, it feels like the best of contemporary prestige TV, and in yet other moments, it represents the worst of the prestige era, particularly when it comes to episode bloat. The besetting sin of Bass Reeves is how slow it is to start, with the energy and pace not picking up until episode three, and how the episodes seem to drag even when the show is at its best. After five episodes, I could not believe there were still three more to go. Bass Reeves feels like a show that should be, at most, six episodes. 


The bloat mostly comes from including “meanwhile, back on the ranch” scenes of Bass Reeves’ family getting along without him in the “western” town of Fort Smith, Arkansas. (If nothing else, this series is a stark reminder that “the wild west” was literally the entire continent west of the Mississippi, and not just the gold rush towns of the Rockies.) Lauren E. Banks stars as Bass’s wife, Jennie, who began her life, like Bass, as a slave on George Reeves’ Texas plantation. Banks is good as Jennie, but, frankly, compared to outlaws and shootouts and whatnot, what’s going on at the Reeves’ homestead just isn’t that interesting. If there is a way to make Jennie and her children compelling, this series never finds it through five episodes. Maybe a miracle happens in episode six, but I’m not holding my breath.


Bass Reeves is sharpest when the series is focused on Bass himself. Oyelowo brings dignity to a character surrounded by the worst imaginable people—the series basically posits that Bass is the only person to emerge from the Civil War as not a complete psychopath—who sticks to his moral code even in the face of constant treachery, danger, and virulent racism. There’s a little bit of a faith-based streak at the core of the series, as Bass is depicted as a man of God who clings to his faith in his darkest times, which contributes to a couple cheesy moments, but overall, provides a balance to the darker elements of the story. I imagine the domestic scenes were meant to do the same, but they’re not as effective as watching Bass hold tightly to his faith even as he grows ever more mired in the morally deficient policies and politics of Reconstruction America.


The series is also excellent whenever Oyelowo is paired with the parade of That Guys who fill out the supporting cast. Shea Whigham shows up doing Shea Whigham things as George Reeves, Bass’s owner who forces him to fight for the Confederacy in the early part of the war. Barry Pepper also shows up to do Barry Pepper things as another Confederate and leading psychopath, Esau Pierce; Forrest Goodluck stars as Billy Crow, an outlaw inspired by Bass; Garrett Hedlund is a one-episode wonder; Dennis Quaid is obviously having a ball playing lawman Sherrill Lynn; and Donald Sutherland lends imposing seniority to the courthouse proceedings as Judge Parker, the “hanging judge” who advocates for Bass to be hired as a marshal. 

Bass Reeves has a lot to recommend it, mostly in the performances of Oyelowo and the outstanding supporting cast of fellow lawmen and outlaws. It’s also fun picking out the shadow of the Lone Ranger—Bass Reeves is said to be the inspiration for that (whitewashed) character, and here there are plenty of references, from a white horse called “Pistol”, to Billy Crow as Bass’s would-be sidekick, to the image of Bass riding in and out of town to serve the law in a lawless land. But it’s too long, paced too slowly, and as well intentioned as the domestic scenes may be, they just do not hold attention as well as Bass on his adventures.


Like all of Taylor Sheridan’s Paramount series, Lawmen: Bass Reeves is a mixed bag. It flies highest when it feels most like David Oyelowo’s project, which is all of the parts concentrated on Bass navigating the lawlessness of the west without losing himself in the moral miasma. Bass Reeves was overdue for his leading man moment, I just wish Lawmen: Bass Reeves was a little more focused and a more tightly told story. But finally, Bass Reeves is getting his due as a hero of the Old West who should have gotten the glory that went to Wyatt Earp, but didn’t for obvious, racist reasons.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves is now streaming on Paramount+, with episodes airing Sunday nights on CBS.


Attached - David Oyelowo at the 2023 LACMA Art+Film Gala, and Dennis Quaid arriving at LAX with his wife and dog.